Non-Indians started speaking for Indians shortly after European contact. Most of these writers were authentic translators, teachers, ministers, writers, novelists, and journalists. Some, such as Helen Hunt Jackson, have done tremendous good. Her book “A Century of Dishonor,” about how the government lied to Indians, cheated them, and took their lands, is the most important Indian book ever published.
But some have distorted the picture, misled people, presented imagined happenings as facts, and tried to make people believe they were Indians when they were not. Some of them have been little people who got a teaching job at a college or school, and suddenly discovered that they were “Indians.” They then become the authority on all things Indian. They do the pow wows, the convocations, the celebration weeks, the Indian days, and the poetry readings.
And a few have gone off the deep end. Carlos Castaneda, who was born in South America, got his Ph. D. from UCLA on the strength of his account of a Yaqui holy man named Juan Matus. But there were times he was supposed to be meeting with the holy man that he was actually holed up on the campus in the library. He made fantastic claims: that Don Juan could turn people into animals (“shape shifters”), that datura, marijuana, and other drugs had magical properties, and that people could fly. But his fake shamanism fit right in with the druggies of the sixties. UCLA finally took his Ph. D. away.
Nevertheless, he died leaving a considerable estate of several million dollars to his children and family. Many colleges are still using his fake books as authentic textbooks. An article in Time Magazine in 1973 charged that the accounts Castaneda gave of his training under Don Juan were fictitious, and that Don Juan did not exist. Castaneda soon went into seclusion, not appearing in public for two decades. UCLA Press is still selling his books, shamelessly. What a bunch of hypocrites!
Hyemeyohsts Storm, whose first name is hard to spell and to say, was another faker who made a minor fortune with his fake Indian book, Seven Arrows. It tried to be a genuine representation of the ceremonies of the Cheyenne people, but it came out as hippie mish-mash, just right for the 1970s. After a minor smash, the man faded away, but apparently never stopped pretending to be Indian. He sold lectures and ceremonies to unsuspecting people for years.
A white woman named Ruth Beebe Hill showed up at my office in California one day in 1978. She was promoting her novel, Hanta Yo, which she claimed was an authentic story from the days when the Dakota Indian people were still free. She claimed to have an Indian man as her informant. She got upset at me when I declined to help her by reviewing her book or endorsing it.
But Hill persisted, and made herself somewhat of an annoyance nationally. Jo Allyn Archambault exposed her as a fraud shortly after her book was published. Several other people exposed her as a fraud and her book as fake, but she had the spotlight long enough to make some money from her book. Unfortunately, it is still selling.
I had seen her type before—conniving, smarmy, and trying to be ingratiating. One of them, a medical type, showed up at my office at Cal State Hayward in 1974. She wanted to recruit some of our male Indian students, give each a six-pack of beer, let them drink it, and then measure the rate at which they metabolized it. Her “theory” was that Indians had a drinking problem because they metabolized alcohol at a slower rate than whites. I threw her out, and did the same to Hill.
Lynn Andrews, a sometime movie actress, made a fortune off her series of fake Indian books. And she took it to another level. She charged people stiff fees to go through what she said were authentic Indian rituals. These rituals were conducted in grand ballrooms of hotels in New York and San Francisco, giving coronaries to the Indian people who follow true Indian religions.
An inauthentic Indian tough guy, played by a white guy, made his appearance in several fake Indian movies of the 1970s period. The “Billy Jack” movies made money for the actor and writer, Tom Laughlin, who soon stopped pretending to be a half-breed Indian.
Forrest Carter, who had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a speechwriter for George Wallace, wrote another fake Indian book called The Education of Little Tree. It was about a Cherokee boy and his growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. It was supposed to be true. The book sold in the millions, and spawned a movie. The only problem was that Carter had never been to North Carolina, and had made the whole thing up.
His real name was Asa Earl Carter, and he had been raised by his parents in Anniston, Alabama. He wrote the famous words for George Wallace’s first inaugural speech, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The University of New Mexico Press, unfortunately, is still selling his fake book. It has sold in the millions. They will not answer my e-mails about why they continue to sell a fraud.
Other fake Indians include:
Jamake Highwater, who was a Greek named Jay Marks or Markopolus when he finished high school in California in 1950. Hank Adams exposed him as a fake in the 1970s, after he had obtained a huge federal grant to make a PBS documentary called “The Primal Mind.” He also wrote a number of “Indian” books.
Ward Churchill, who had a quarter century run at the University of Colorado and published more than a dozen Indian books. The university dismissed him in 2008 for plagiarizing. He had exposed himself to ridicule after he called the widows of the September 11, 2001 attack “little Eichmans.” He led the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement for the whole time he was at the university. The tribe that enrolled him took it back.
Timothy Patrick Burrus, who went by the fake name of Nasdijj and had three hugely successful books in the early 2000s. They were based on his faked Navajo childhood, which was full of death, child molestation, and domestic violence. Several people exposed him in 2006. After that he could get no more of his fake Indian books published.
Margaret Seltzer, who published under the fake name Margaret B. Jones, and who claimed to have been brought up in South Central Los Angeles. She claimed to be half white and half Navajo. But she was all white, not brought up in a ghetto in South Central, and had gone to prep schools. NPR exposed her almost immediately, and the publisher recalled all her books.
Sylvester Clark Long, also known as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was a “colored” man who escaped North Carolina, went to Canada, and starting impersonating being an Indian. He traveled the Wild West show circuit and starred in a Hollywood movie. He learned a few words of Cherokee, but later claimed to be a Blackfeet born in Canada. He also wrote a book that was soon proved to be fake. He was possibly the first fake Indian author, having written in the early 1920s. He committed suicide in 1931 after he was exposed as a fraud.
Johnny Cash claimed to be part Cherokee to get a movie part. He played the great chief John Ross in a TV movie about the Trail of Tears, when Pres. Andrew Jackson forced them at gunpoint to give up their homes in Georgia and march 1,500 miles to Oklahoma. When the movie was over, Cash basically said he was funning us, that he wasn’t really a Cherokee. He went on with the rest of his life as a country singer.
One of the people who faked his way to the top was our Indian counselor at Cal State Hayward when I was there in 1972-74. He only lasted one year there. The Indian students would not go to him for help; there was a good counselor who was Chicano, and they went to him.
The fake Indian spent most of his year compiling a filmography of Indian films. The following year he got hired as the assistant director of the same program on another campus. After two years there, he got hired as the director of the same program on a third campus. He was the Peter Principle in action.
Dr. Dean Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque. His address is